This Author Spotlight
author and Travel Writer
(below with daughter Phoebe and son Charlie).
Ben lives in Brighton, England with his wife and children.
Ben is also the author of the novels The Lawnmower Celebrity,
and the travel guides Frommer's England with your Family (with his wife, Dinah),
Frommer's Britain for Free (also with his wife, Dinah),
and Frommer's Scotland with your Family (also with his super-uber-talented wife, Dinah).
1. How did you get into writing?
I started off as a newspaper reporter on The Bucks Herald. I became a newspaper reporter imagining it was a natural entry into novel writing, having read too many blurbs in the back of 1960s Penguin classics. After ten years as a reporter covering fetes, cats stuck up trees and pictures of tall sunflowers, it became clear no editor was going to ring me up from Penguin and say, “Hey, fancy writing a comic novel for us in the same style as your page 3 picture caption about that giant marrow in Long Crendon?” I was 30, when my mum died. It sparked a crisis. I’d just covered my 4th annual scout jamboree and realized it was now or never. I wanted to do something my mum would have been proud of so I quit my job to write my first novel, The Lawnmower Celebrity. I slept on friends’ floors to save on rent, and I lived like a wild animal. It took me a year. My girlfriend (now wife) sent the book off to literary agents the day before I left the country to go backpacking. I didn’t want to be in the country when the rejections came in. Amazingly it was plucked from the slush pile by an agent at Curtis Brown six months after I’d given up all hope. I had only that week started applying for jobs on local papers, sending them all by tall sunflower clippings.
2. What do you like best (or least) about writing?
I love editing the best. When there’s 150,000 words down, I love tightening it up and improving things - making jokes sharper, scenes more poignant, adding and taking away. I hate starting a book. The knowledge that for a long time what you’re working on will be absolute crap. It’s nice also being able to work in pyjamas. I’ve spent a lot of my life in pyjamas and that’s a very good thing. Although I do miss company. It’s an anti-social job and I have spent time over the years staring forlornly out of the living room window at commuters with laptops, feeling jealous that they’re probably going to be talking to other people in offices all day. When the post comes in the morning I run for it like an excitable puppy. I sometimes stare after the Portman through the letterbox. It’s human interaction of a sort. I don’t say anything. I just stare after him. In my pyjamas.
3. What is your writing process? IE do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write 7 days a week, etc?
I had a terrible experience on my third novel. For my first two novels I had no outline or word counts. I gave myself no targets. The only target was that I had to sit there all day in front of the screen until my girlfriend shouted, “Come off that now. NYPD Blue is starting.” It seemed to work. I got both books written. Then my third novel came along. It took me seven years to write it. It was a nightmare. I couldn’t stop rewriting, tweaking, removing commas, adding commas, changing commas to semi-colons, semi-colons to full colons and then back to semi-colons. I’d decided to write the book out of contract so I wouldn’t be rushed, so I’d have the time to make it perfect. But without a deadline the time just rolled on. I need pressure, it made me realise. I need a deadline. Now I plan meticulously. I don’t set a word count, but I know when I have to finish each chapter by and what it has to cover.
4. Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful?”
It was JD Salinger who made me first want to be a writer. The Catcher in the Rye was unlike anything I’d ever read. So direct, cool and with such a seductively distinctive voice. I wanted to be Holden for years afterwards. I once went through a massive Graham Greene phase. I also love Evelyn Waugh, both the Amises. I’ll read anything by Michael Frayn and Dave Sedaris and I really admire the writing of Geoff Dyer. He writes in a way that makes you want him to be your friend. I’m a big fan of Mil Millington as well and Dan Rhodes.
5. Should the question mark in the above question be inside or outside the quotes?
To be honest I don’t really give a monkeys. If I was writing it, I’d probably stick it inside for neatness. My wife, who initially edits my stuff, would more than likely then take it back outside the speech marks. I’d then sneak it in again after she sent the manuscript back to me. If she saw this she’d then probably yell at me, “Do you want me to do this for you or not? You’ll look a fool sticking inside. Do you want to look a fool? You want your writing pals to laugh at you? Is that what you want?” My wife is quite strict grammatically.
6. What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?
My stance is relaxed although I quite often deliberately make their use inconsistent to give my wife apoplexy: “MAKE YOUR F**KING MIND UP! Call yourself a writer. You’re an idiot. You’re a fool. I should be the writer.” Actually I wonder if I have overplayed my wife’s strictness here. In fact I might get in trouble for this. Can you cut this answer out?
Um, sure, we could do that.
7. What is your book about and how did it come to fruition?
My book is called Are We Nearly There Yet? 8000 Misguided Miles Round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra. It’s about a demented five-month road trip round Britain I went on with my wife and two kids (both under 4 at the time). Basically it came about because that book I mentioned before that took 7 years to write had just been rejected. I’d taken so long writing it everyone at my publisher’s had forgotten who I was when I submitted it. They’d sort of forgotten they were my publisher, had ceased to be my publisher in fact without really telling me. They were like, “Sorry what book. Er… what’s your name again?” After that disappointment rather than start on another seven-year odyssey, I’d ended up instead looking after the kids while my wife went back to work. It was a few years after this, the year before our daughter started school when my wife answered an advert looking for people to write a family guidebook about Britain. We had to write a guidebook about the various child-friendly attractions in the country. It sounded easy. We thought we’d spent all day licking rocket lollies at zoos. In actual fact we had to visit over 1000 attractions and live off £10 a day. We slept in different hotel rooms every day for 140 consecutive nights. We were attacked by bats, snakes. We saw Billie Piper’s pyjamas, were almost blown up in a field of live ordnance. I had a kidney stone, we wrote the car off and my dad died en route. Are We Nearly There Yet? is a book about that experience.
8. What’s your current writing project?
I’m finishing off a novel and also writing a follow up to Are We Nearly There Yet? We travelled 10,000 miles round France last summer. It’s about that basically.
9. What book(s) are you currently reading?
The West Pier by Patrick Hamilton.
10. Who or what inspires your writing?
Cheese consumption mainly. I used to smoke. Now I eat cheese. French cheese. Lots of it. On tiny thin biscuits. If I’m stuck for an idea I have cheese. Actually even if I’m not stuck for an idea I have cheese. I’m eating cheese right now in fact.
Finally, is there anything you’d care to add? Please also include where people can read your published stories, buy your book, etc.
Are We Nearly There Yet? is available in the states in the spring. In the UK it’s available in Waterstones, WH Smith and on Amazon.co.uk. It’s also on a kindle promotion at the moment priced at 99p. It made John Cleese laugh, Terry Wogan cry and was a BBC Radio 2 Pick of 2011.
Here’s the link (go on, you know you want to):
PAPERBACK: Are We Nearly There Yet?
KINDLE EDITION: Are We Nearly There Yet?
Thank you, Ben. We often refer to a writer going on a journey during the writing of a book or novel, but in your case it is quite literal. Wow.
Grab a copy of Ben's book now. It made John Cleese laugh, and he's a professional funny man; he knows funny!
Also follow Ben on Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/BenHatch
And check out his other books on Amazon: Amazon/Ben-Hatch.
Again, thank you, Ben for sharing your journey with us. Come back again when the book for the 10,000-mile trip around France is ready.
If you're a writer and would like to be featured in an Author Spotlight, contact me at AuthorRyanSchneider@gmail.com